Monday, December 31, 2007

The Best Graphic Novels of 2007

Today’s the last day of 2007, the perfect time to take one last look back at the year that was and arbitrarily declare which were the best graphic novels of the year.

Why? Because it’s the law.

For the purpose of my best of ’07 list, I’m using the same definition of “graphic novel” and the same criteria for the purposes of this list that I did last year—any work of long form sequential art published in 2007 (be they collections of comics strips, collections of comic books, collections of short stories from various sources and original graphic novels, regardless of what year the work collected was originally created). Additionally, I’m focusing on works that could be read and enjoyed by themselves, which in some cases eliminates 2007 volumes in series.

And, as a final caveat, while I read a lot of comics and graphic novels every week, obviously I didn’t read everything that was published in the year 2007, so this is more a top list of books I personally read rather than of every book published this year. But “The Best Graphic Novels That Were Published in 2007 That Caleb Happened To Read by December 31st” just isn’t as snappy a title.

Here’s what I’ve decided are my top ten:

1.) Robot Dreams (First Second), by Sara Varon A sweet story about making and losing friends populated by darling anthropomorphic characters that is actually an achingly bittersweet meditation on the most human of experiences—losing someone you love due not to tragedy or death, but circumstance and time. It’s a rare work—of any medium—that can break and warm your heart at the same time. (Note: I originally identified the publisher as AdHouse Books; I regret the error. For great '07 AdHouse releases this year, check out Joey Weiser's fun all-ages adventure The Ride Home and Jamie Tanner's ultra-weird The Aviary, and superior floppies Johnny Hiro and Skyscrapers of the Midwest).

2.) The Salon (St. Martin’s Griffin), by Nick Bertozzi In my original review, I called this “a masterpiece of a graphic novel,” and my opinion of it hasn’t diminished since.

3.) Laika (First Second), by Nick Abadzis The Cold War space race as seen from an unusual point of view. It’s not just that Abadzis looks at the Russian rather than American program, but that he gets inside his characters’ heads, all of them, and considering one of them is the titular dog, the first Earthling in space. It’s not easy trying to tell a story from the point of view of an animal, but Abadzis succeeds wildly, relying on the essential nature of comics to present the brave little dog’s thoughts as mostly-wordless dreams and memories. It’s a very convincing conveyance of how a dog might think. And Laika is but one of the interesting characters in this fictionalized version of a real-life epic story.

4.) Stagger Lee (Image Comics), by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix An amazing mixture of fiction and non-fiction, this graphic novel dramatizes a version of the Stagger Lee legend, the inspiration for what seem like a million different songs, while also engaging in musical and cultural archaeology, drawing interesting and unexpected connections.

5.) Crécy (Avatar/Apparrat), by Warren Ellis and Raulo Caceres Certainly the best thing Ellis has written this year, and maybe, just maybe the best thing he’s ever written. Considering the fact that he writes several thousand new comics every week (I’m estimating), that’s really saying something. It’s educational, entertaining and important.

6.) Doctor 13: Architecture & Morality Architecture & Morality (DC Comics), by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang The unbelievably good story of a professional cynic and a band of the least-believable comic book concepts in DC’s publishing history team up for a hilarious adventure, meditation on the modern comics industry and creator’s manifesto, all rolled up into one beautifully drawn package boasting a joke or ten in every panel.

7.) Exit Wounds (Drawn & Quarterly), by Rutu Modan A subtle exploration of personal and national identity, played out as a young Israeli man’s search for his estranged father and his father’s young lover, whom he may be starting to fall in love with a little bit himself. Great story, great art, great colors, great book design—Drawn and Quarterly had a hell of a year this year, and this may just be the crown jewel in their ’07 output. This, or perhaps Shortcomings. Speaking of which…

8.) Shortcomings (Drawn & Quarterly), Adrian Tomine Tomine fills me with hatred, he’s so damn good. The bastard.

9.) Tekkonkinkreet: Black & White (Viz Media), by Taiyo Matsumoto An oversized, one-volume collection of the manga series about two feral street kids who battle yakuza and gaijin investors for the fate of Treasure Town, a city apparently devoid of straight lines, in which an odd assortment of wild animals can be drawn into the background of any panel. It’s kind of like Batman, if Batman were two little kids, one of whom had a severe developmental problem and an affinity for funny hats. Matsumoto’s queasy urban environments and strong characters make for an incredibly engrossing read, of the sort it’s hard to stop once you start, and every character’s arc is of great interest, no matter how despicable they seem when you first meet them.

10.) 52 Vols. 1-4 (DC Comics), by A Small Army of Creators If anything on this list is likely to get me laughed loudly at, I suppose it’s this. And I have gone back and forth with whether what is, on its face, just a superhero soap opera deserves to be up here in the top ten, or down there on the lists of candidates for top ten spot-age. But ultimately, the 52-part weekly series, which was collected into four different trades that were released throughout 2007, belongs up here. I’ve always believed pretty firmly that the thing that distinguishes the very best comics are the ones that do things that can only be done in comics (Regarding comics criticism specifically, but this principle holds true for works in every medium; the best films are the films that do what only films can, the best plays, the best prose novels, etc.). Great characters, great dialogue, great stories, even great art—these are things you can find in other media as well. But 52 exploited the shared setting and decades-long fictional history of the DCU—something built up over some 70 years by hundreds of different writers, artists and editors—to tell a massive story that could have only been told in a comic book series. For its scale and ambition alone, this is a remarkable comic book. But when all is said and done, it was more than just that scale and ambition, or the unusual format, that earns 52 a spot up here—it also had all t hose things you look for in comics. It certainly wasn’t without its problems—obviously the art wasn’t the best, and there were problems with the narrative structure and point of view—but it’s still by far one of the most amazing comics that was published in ’07, even in this trade form, which I originally thought the story wouldn’t take to.

Throughout the year, every time I read a really good comic I thought might conceivably be a candidate for a future Best of the Year notation, I added it to a list. Below are all of the books that were on that list when I sat down to pick the top ten.

I don’t think these necessarily constitute the next best 22 books of the year, and looking at them now on December 31st, it’s clear some of them weren’t ever seriously in the running for the top ten, but may have seemed like it while I was subjected to the high of having just put down a comic book I really enjoyed. Anyway, I thought it might offer a different way of rounding up some of the more notable books of the year, even if, in some cases,uch of tthat noteworthiness seems to have dissipated between the time I first read them and now.

All-Star Superman Vol. 1 (DC Comics), by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely Put as simply as I can put it, this is probably the best superhero comic there is at the moment, and probably one of the best of any moment ever.

Aya, (Drawn & Quarterly), by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie I called this “easily the first absolute must-read of 2007,” so I hope everyone’s read it by now. A romantic dramedy set in the capital city of the west African country of The Ivory Coast in the late ‘70s, it’s a rare chance to see a story about Africa that isn’t about genocide, AIDS or safaris.

Black Metal Vol. 1 (Oni Press) Perhaps the most fun I’ve had reading a comic book this year. The only serious competition I can think of off the top of my head, in fact, was from Scott Pilgrim Vol. 4 and Yotsuba&!.

Dogs and Water (Drawn & Quarterly), by Anders Nilsen See what I mean about the year D+Q had? Here’s another of their releases. Nilsen’s post-apocalyptic existential melodrama is a beauty to behold. Occasionally unsettling—even somewhat irritating—it’s ultimately massively rewarding.

Elk’s Run (Villard), by Joshua Hale Dialkov, Noel Tuazon and Scott A. Keating A “coming of age thriller” about a small-town utopia that becomes a dystopia in the space of less than a generation. This is another genre piece that I don’t think manages to transcend that genre, but as a thriller with a neat hook and strong characters, it works quite well.

Empowered Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Comics) by Adam Warren Warren deserves a medal for turning out a superhero comic that manages to objectify its heroine and fetishize all of the genre elements, and yet still manage to do it without sacrificing the quality of the art, writing and humor, without insulting the reader and, most admirably, doing it in the context of an admirably healthy and honest relationship. Oh, and it’s in a book geared specifically at an audience who would like to see a barely dressed superheroine having sex and not, you know, for a general audience featuring a corporate owned pop culture icon.

Essex County Vol. 1: Tales From the Farm (Top Shelf Comix), by Jeff Lemire Despite the enthusiasm I expressed for the fact that this was labeled “Vol. 1,” promising at least one more volume, I still haven’t gotten around to reading the since-released Volume 2. This first volume is an elegiac short story with pretty incredible, versatile artwork that manages to do most of the heavy-lifting when it comes to telling the story. This is one of several books on this list that is a veritable how-to lesson in comics creation.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (Dark Horse), by Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola That this is a sword and sorcery novel adaptation by Chaykin and Mignola is really all you need to know about what makes this a book worth a comics reader’s time. Dark Horse’s new collection of this 1991 series captures Mignola still transitioning to the style his fans will recognize from his more recent Hellboy work, has some wonderfully fun characters to hang around, and boasts a scene in which a dude totally has a sword fight with an octopus that has eight swords! That may have been the single coolest scene I’ve read in a comic book this year. Here it is, in all it’s tentacle-slicing glory.

The Grave Robber’s Daughter (Fantagraphics), by Richard Sala Looking back from December, this is one of several books that doesn’t rally belong here, but, it’s release early in the year landed it in my “To Think About For Best of ’07 List” file. In my original review, I described the plot like this: “Girl detective Judy Drood is like a buxom Veronica Mars with Nancy Drew's fashion sense, the foul mouth of a sailor and the brawling skills of a prize-fighter. Sala's spooky adventure opens with Judy's car breaking down outside the secluded town of Obidiah's Glen, now populated entirely by asshole teenagers, scary clowns and a single little girl. Judy starts out simply looking for a phone, but soon has to fight her way through undead clowns and hard-partying teens to crack the case.” I had previously counted the ways in which I loved Judy Drood in this post.

Houdini: The Handcuff King (Hyperion), by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi Come on Bertozzi; give someone else a chance, huh?

Incredible Change-Bots (Top Shelf), by Jeffrey Brown What kept this out of the top ten was the fact that if you don’t share the necessary set of experiences that inspired it—specifically, watching a certain cartoon and playing with a certain line of toys in the ‘80s—it’s going to seem more silly than brilliant. If you do share those experiences with Brown, however, then you’re in for an amazing reading experience. I wish more of the nostalgia-fueled comics in the market these days had this sort of creative version of nostalgia driving them.

James Sturm’s America: God, Gold and Golems (Drawn and Quarterly), By James Sturm Three formative tales of the making of America, from three different periods of time. All three are somewhat dark, but it’s not an oppressive darkness. These are tales of the past, after all, and while the ignorance, greed, violence and hatred they illustrate went into the construction of this country and its spirit, they also show the impact that normal, everyday people truly have. There’s more to history than wars and presidents and, in fact, those things may not even be all that important, really. I loathe the title of this book, incidentally.

King-Cat Classix (Drawn & Quarterly), by John Porcellino One of the pioneers of auto-bio comics gets a massive 380-page collection of his zines and mini-comics, covering most of his almost twenty-year-long career. The beauty of this collection is that it’s big enough that you can see Porcellino’s work change before your eyes, as he becomes a wittier and wiser writer, and a sharper, more elegant artist, with each thirty pages or so.

King City Vol. 1 (Tokyopop), by Brandon Graham I first became aware of Graham’s work after reading Escalator, a collection of shorter pieces from the writer/artist in which you can see him feeling his way towards what I think of as a sort of world fusion style, mixing elements of manga, European comics, American comics and other types of art in a storytelling style that’s the best of all worlds. It’s a style Paul Pope, Corey S. Lewis, Bryan Lee O’Malley, James Stokoe and a few others are working in to various degrees, although, obviously, there’s a great deal of difference in their finished products. Anyway, this is Graham’s first long-form work, a manga-like digest about the titular city and its interesting inhabitants. And it’s a tour de force of design. I tried to explain the awesomeness of King City in this post.

The Living and the Dead (Fantagraphics), by Jason Before reading this, I was so goddam sick of zombie comics that if I never read another one for my whole life, I probably would have been set. And yet despite this being a comic about zombies, as it turns out a Jason comic about zombies is an entirely different type of zombie comic. Confession: I still haven’t read I Killed Adolf Hitler. It may be even better than this one; I honestly don’t know.

The Professor’s Daughter (First Second), By Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert I’m getting awfully sick of reviewing books by Sfar and Guibert, as it gets a little tedious trying to think of new ways to compliment the same damn creators for a great new book every month or two. I’m not getting sick of reading their books one bit, though. The two reverse their normal collaboration duties here, for a sort of romantic comedy turning on the civil rights of mummies in Victorian England.

Red Eye, Black Eye (Alternative Comics), by K. Thor Jensen A comic book Kerouac travels the country by Greyhound bus, visiting friends and internet acquaintances as he searches for an adventure that will land him a black eye. Part travelogue, part anthology of biographical anecdotes collected from others and part auto-bio drama, it makes for a fascinating read. There’s a preview here, and I tried to figure out the specifics of his Columbus visit, and got some expert help in the comments section, in this post.

Spent (Drawn & Quarterly), by Joe Matt A creepy, possibly psycho chronic masturbator, porn addict cartoonist alienates his cartoonists friends while going to insane lengths to avoid spending money and interacting with his housemates. In his free time, he focuses on creating the ultimate pornographic mix tape. Sad, hilarious and more than a little distressing, for the glimpses of yourself you may see in Matt.

Terr’ble Thompson (Fantagraphics), by Gene Deitch This collection of the short-lived 1950’s comic strip about a young boy who was the real hero of history, serving as a sort of factotum solving the various problems of history’s notables. Deitch’s cartooning is top-notch, and doesn’t look the least bit dated.

Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love (G.T. Labs), by Jim Ottaviani and Dylan Meconis A fictionalized telling of the true story of the scientist who proved love was real in a series of experiments. Real enough to be accepted by the scientific community, anyway.

The World Below (Dark Horse), by Paul Chadwick In introductory material presented with this new collection of a short-lived action adventure series from the man who brought us Concrete, Chadwick talks about how any TV producers in the reading audience might like a story that’s just like Lost but different. He sells his brilliant if hardly transcendental genre story way too short. Mixing elements of British sci-fi comics and old-school pulp prose sci-fi, Chadwick sends an expert group of explorer/soldiers into a bizarre underground land, one that he populates with animals, monsters and machinery among the most alien I’ve ever encountered in comics. The imagination that must have went into that world-building is impressive as all hell; Chadwick invented creatures that operated so far outside of our normal understanding of science that a reader could feel just as lost as his protagonists. You’ve literally never seen anything like the world in The World Below.

Yotsuba&! Vols. 4-5 (ADV Manga), Kiyohiko Azuma Each chapter of this manga about a precocious toddler is a complete story unto itself, although the jokes get funnier and funnier the more chapters you read. At this point, the sight of Yotsuba alone is enough to make me crack a smile.


mordicai said...

my not shocking picks were all-star supes & iron fist.

Mina V2 said...

Noooeees! why does the Best of the year list must come after Christmas? I would have been a good sheep and bought these books as presents for my brothers, Caleb. Without your wise guidance, I had to choose myself. *shakes head* I guess I'll just have to buy these for myself, then..

*sigh* How will I face next year's Christmas shopping now, knowing if only the dates were reversed, I wouldn't have to guess in the almost-dark?

Love your blog more than words can tell. Cheers, and happy new year!

Anonymous said...

Yotsuba&! needs to make the NYT bestseller list I swear to God. Its probably one of the best G-rated comics in the history of ever.

Also kind of funny in how your brain automatically adjusts to the stakes involved in a story. I remember reading a chapter thinking "Oh crap she's gonna break the milk bottle! No, don't take it!"

Anonymous said...

I'm sad I haven't read all the books on your top ten list, but Stagger Lee was, well, staggeringly good for what it was, and while 52 is an odd beast to include of a list of less-commercial artsier titles, it definitely made enough of a mark to deserve a nod.

Peter N. Jones said...

I agree, Crecy was excellent. I also enjoyed a little known one out of Minnesota called Axiom-Man. It was action packed, but had a fair amount of moral undertones in it.

Caleb said...

Thanks for the comments and reccomendations gang. I have the first trade of Iron Fist in my to read pile, and this is the first I've heard of Aximon-Man.

Anonymous said...

was FunHome '07? If so, I loved that one.

I also love AdHouse Books - great publisher. I'll have to check out Robot Dreams?

-arch 14

pitzerboy said...

Thanks for the kind words, and thoughts that we would have published Robot Dreams. Actually, First Second published RD. However, we would have, if we could have. In fact, we asked Sara to be in our first anthology, PROJECT: TELSTAR, which she graciously acknowledges within the pages of RD. Anyways.. just thought I'd clarify. And yes, RD is a great book, which people should check out.

Caleb said...

I also love AdHouse Books - great publisher. I'll have to check out Robot Dreams?

They are a great publisher, and you do have to check out Robot Dreams, but as Chris Pitzer points out, they're not one and the same—I'm just easily confused.

Sorry about that Chris; I'll fix it in the post.